Ahead of me, all I could see was a couple of hundred backs and all these riders I knew rushing away from me—Mark Harrison, Tom Fryer, Noel Phillips, etc.—and I thougt, ‘Oh man, they’ve got it today but I don’t.’ I tried to keep those thoughts at bay and soon enough, as we climb some of the lesser hills, we’re all riding together in the second group behind all the crazy fast folks up front—Ned Overend and the three other guys who'd eventually go under 1:20.
How does one dose out your effort on something like this, that’s the big thing. You don’t want to be dead by the shed (D.O.T. shed, just before the final 10.5-mile climb), as Mark Harrison so aptly put it last week. At the same time, you don't want to miss out on a big fast train that can get you out there pretty quickly.
At the start of Powerhouse Hill, some folks jumped on it, standing and sprinting by me on either side like I was standing still. And I thought, ‘Ah, here’s another place where the competitive race is different. Here’s where I’m dropped.’ But not 400 meters later, a lot of those guys seemed spent whereas I’d found my rhythm and just slipped right on by them. In fact, I rode this hill as well as I’ve ever ridden it, just sat and spun and pulled away from a bunch of people.
Near the top of Powerhouse I came across Bernie Harrison, Mark’s brother, who's an avid racer down in Reno. But he’d never ridden this route before and was looking like the wheels were falling off. (Figuratively speaking.) I told him that he just had to make it to the bend just 50 yards ahead and that seemed to revive him a bit. And in fact, on the flat/rolling stretch right after, where everybody in that second group was pretty much back together, he was right there.
Powerhouse Hill behind us, all that was left was the final 10.5, which climbs some 3,000 feet. Drafting would help a little here, more to probably just block the south wind at spots especially near the top, but in the last 10.5 it’s pretty much up to each individual rider. Questions abounded: Have I trained enough? Have I skipped enough desserts? Has my eating of only two slices of pizza when I really craved four paid off? I’d gotten my weight down to where I actually felt skinny, not just fit. And on a couple hilly time trials I do around town, I was riding them faster than ever. But I sorely missed training with John Clark, who last year pushed me to a third place finish in the rec. division (he got second) when I rode a 1:44. This year though, he wasn’t quite into it and so we only made it out here once, back in June. I wasn’t sure what this year’s race would bring.
About a mile before the shed, an echelon formed and our speed greatly increased. Rounding the bend before the final 10.5, there were hoots, hollers, and yells, just like last year. Here’s where things were going to get serious. Nothing but one giant uphill for next 10-plus miles, 3,000 feet elevation gain. No way to escape it. I felt great right from the start and though I wasn’t conscious of making any big push, I started pulling away from the pack. The first mile isn’t that steep so I was still in my big chainring for a bit of it until I realized that was ridiculous. I’d last 10 minutes like that. When I inevitably slowed, I was passed by wave upon wave of riders.
Still, I felt like I was in a rhythm and wasn’t too demoralized; checking my speedometer I could see I was riding 2 mph faster than on my own which on a hill like this is hugely significant. Somewhere around here I passed Noel Phillips who last year rode away from Clark and I and won the rec division race. He didn’t look to be doing well and afterward, he told me he’d gone out with that lead group, which set a hellatious pace that about killed him.
About the same time, Henry Pfeffer and Tom Fryer caught back up with me and after some encouraging words from them, I latched on to Tom’s wheel. We kind of worked our way back up the field and as we approached this one turn—the crack-the-whip turn, I call it—I started feeling really good. It’s a big wide turn with a relatively flat approach and as I found out the previous week, if you increase your effort and take the turn really wide so that it’s still basically flat, you can really fly around it--like you’re the last ice skater in crack the whip. And since the following section is still flattish, you can get up to 15 or 16 mph, which is a huge psychological boost. That's what I did, and from then on, I felt like I was weightless and my tires were filled with helium.
I kept my momentum going, gaining confidence with each mile and slowly catching up and passing rider after rider. It turned into one of those glorious days. One I haven’t had on the bike since I did RAMROD three years ago. (I haven’t had a day like that running since I was 22.) Just past the lower ski area, the exact half-way point of the climb, where the mountains open up to your right for the first time, I was overcome with what an amazing day this was. The weather was perfect, I felt great, and there were close to 700 cyclists out here choosing to ride 24.5 very tough miles for no other reason than the love of riding. And of the outdoors. And of being alive. It was a true joyride.
Passing the upper ski lodge, things tend to get serious. The grade steepens, you’re tired, there’s usually a cold south wind, maybe elevation is an issue too. Whatever the reason, I usually slow down these last three miles very much against my wishes. I’ve come to call this part the glue strip because in past years I’ve felt like I’m pedaling through glue. This year in training though, I’d added some serious discomfort to my Artist Point rides. As soon as I’d make it to the top, I’d turn around and ride back down to the visitors’ center a couple miles lower down, then ride hard back to the top. Psychologically, I came to realize the last few miles were really no big deal.
In this year’s race, when I hit that stretch, I knew I could push through it without the fear of every muscle in my lower body seizing up. Sure, I wanted the race to be over, but there was less of that “uncharted territory/what’s gonna happen?” feel to it. Making the final turn I went into semi-sprint mode, something I’d practiced. Stand for 10 pedal strokes, sit for 10, stand for 10, etc.
The previous night, my wife, Jen, and son, Baker, had said they were coming out to watch the race. And though I appreciated their good intentions, I doubted the likelihood of them driving out at such an ungodly hour only to have to wait around for about 3 hours ‘til I show. But with 200 meters to go, I heard the cowbell. The one they bought last year at Ironman Coeur d’Alene. There they were—cheering and screaming. They’d even chalked the road (“Go Team McQ!”) and Bake took a cool photo of me. (Jen now has cowbell finger, a cut from banging the dang thing for like an hour straight. She truly suffered, all to give riders more cowbell.) Crossing the finish line, I quick punched my bike computer for the time – 1:38 something. I’d hoped to break 1:40. I PR’d by more than 5 minutes! (Results have me at 1:39:06; I'll take it.)
A great day. Thanks, race director Charlie Heggem, and the myriad volunteers, sponsors and agencies who make this my favorite Whatcom County race!
NOTE: Check www.norkarecreation.com for results. And though at least one Bellingham Herald photographer was there, the paper had no stories about it, just a couple photos. Maybe the Foothills Gazette (http://www.foothillsgazette.com/) will have something in its next issue.